Like many of those Early Access games that have come before it, ARK: Survival Evolved is another survival game, one that has gained an explosive amount of attention. However the question is does it provide something different enough to draw you away from those other games? Overall no, ARK shares many of the same features as other games in the genre such as H1Z1 or DayZ. Gathering materials, crafting, building, hunting, PVP all of these are in it, but it does one thing many other games in the genre don’t do; it at least tries to stand out from the crowd. At this point in development the game is wracked with technical issues and not all of the ideas are fully developed, which cripples immersion and sucks the joy out of the game, but that’s not to say it isn’t a good game. I had a lot of fun during my time with ARK and I genuinely think that if you are going to play a survival game (especially an Early Access one) that ARK: Survival Evolved is the one to play.
Waking up on The Island for the first time, the player is met with the hardest challenge the game presents: achieving a stable framerate. The performance issues of ARK are by far it’s greatest problem, and one that doesn’t look to be fixed any time soon. Despite running the game on a high-end rig with a GTX 980, I expected an unfinished game to have some technical issues, but wasn’t prepared for the swathe of problems that plague ARK. Even by Early Access standards the game is glitchy, buggy and has not only a generally unstable framerate, but huge drops, including freezing in certain areas. Upon starting the game your first battle is with the options menu in order to figure out which options are killing the game’s performance so that you can crank them all the way down immediately. I managed to achieve a blend of medium settings with a lot of things such anti-aliasing turned off as well as sky detail and ground clutter all the way down, allowing me to achieve an almost stable 60 frames per second, barring some areas. It’s quite disappointing really as high settings can be almost gorgeous at times with luscious greenery, flowing waterfalls and great views perpetuated by the ever present dinosaurs. However it’s then supremely disappointing to play it on lower settings and watch greenery fizzle in slowly from spotty green pixels or suddenly have large rocks pop in out of nowhere. To see the game at it’s worst you simply have to enter the cave system which acts as a dangerous place you traverse for important resources to have the game almost crash upon entry and the framerate take such a dive you would think it’s taking cover from the awful texture pop in.
After surviving your encounter with the options menu you find your self placed on an island inhabited by fellow players on your server, a myriad of extinct creatures, including of course dinosaurs. The character you control on the island is of your own making as ARK has a character creator that lets you choose from male and female as well as a huge variety of options for manipulating body size and shape. I actually spent a fair amount of time in the character creator as the options allowed you to create some hilarious characters (if you could call them that), not unlike the wild characters that came out of the Bloodborne character creator. Once you have created your misshapen excuse for a character you can finally begin your exciting adventure by punching a tree to gather wood and picking up rocks off the shore. This monotonous start is not by any means a knock at ARK itself, its a trope of the genre that you have to go through if you wish to get to the more exciting aspects of the game.
You begin by collecting basic materials in order to craft rudimentary tools, in order to get more materials. This gathering is accompanied by monitoring of your stats via the symbols on the HUD displaying everything from your health, hunger and thirst to how much weight your carrying. The early hours of ARK will be a cycle of hunting, gathering and sprinting to the nearest river to avoid dehydration until you can craft a water skin to quench your thirst while your out, carrying a proverbial Home Depot of tools and materials. As you progress through the game, punching trees and stabbing Dodo birds, you are always gaining experience points, either through actions or just via passive experience gain. This allows you to not only increase the stats of your character but more importantly spend Engram points on new recipes in order to craft new items. The game deviates from the standard “throw items together and see what it makes,” in favor of you having preset recipes which can only be earned from spending points on them. This includes things from essentials such as cooking pots and spears, all the way to irrigation pipes to run water to your base, or even fridges to keep meat from spoiling. This system means that while survival games do require a certain amount of “make your own fun”, the Engram system means every level gives you a new goal. However reaching these new goals is quite a slow burn, in order to obtain something as simple as a bow and arrow it takes reaching level 15 which took me about six to eight hours. However the level-made-goals are varied and can range from needing to collect materials, to making a furnace, all the way to having to hunt a tamable Triceratops.
The early hours of ARK will be a cycle of hunting and gathering; a slow burn
I’m largely in favor of this system however it does lead to one major problem with ARK, which is that the slow burn means that when someone comes along and destroys your hard work it’s soul destroying. Due to the performance issues among my own personal preference of not having all of my hard work destroyed, I decided to stick to PVE servers with occasional dips into PVP when I felt like it. It’s not exactly a fun experience to have created a large base out of thatch to have a stray person wander up, knock it down within five minutes, and proceed to kill you and steal all your resources. Of course this is actually a major draw for many players who enjoy PVP, but I think if you want to play PVP in ARK your better off sticking to dedicated battle royal servers with a last survivor standing game mode. Thus other than dipping my toes in PVP I stuck to low population PVE servers most of the time in order to avoid coming back to a flaming house, dead bodies and empty cupboards.
The real meat of ARK is a few hours into the game, crafting elaborate bases, irrigating crops, creating expansive plumbing and food storage systems is a lot of fun. Seeing your small thatch hut evolve into an expansive fortress filled with equipment and goodies is a great experience, especially knowing that you can adventure without fear of losing everything. Once I had a base up and running with my tribe, the games rudimentary faction system, I was finally free to explore the world without feeling like a sword was hanging above my head, ready to cut through any fun I was having by depriving me of everything I own. Exploring the vast island of ARK was the most fun I had in the game, I could always find new areas to explore; whether they be vast crystal caves or small archipelago inhabited by only carnivores etc. The island is a fantastic setting for a game in this genre and is by far one of the games greatest strengths, it feels like the more your pry open the island the more you can find to do.
Of course the ARK’s greatest strength is by far its local wildlife: the dinosaurs. From gigantic Brontosaurus that tower over you, to packs of small Raptors that can cut you down in an instant, the games wildlife is both varied and deadly. Not all the dinosaurs are out to get you however, all of the herbivores seem content to wander aimlessly neither in pack nor with any goal. Don’t get me wrong, the dinosaurs definitely provide a large part of the appeal and fun of ARK, but this is not Jurassic Park. You shouldn’t expect anything so shocking or magnificent, there are no large moving herds of triceratops or T-Rex cutting down swathes of smaller dinosaur, in fact most of the dinosaurs seem content to wander until you intrude upon them. You will occasionally see a raptor or some other carnivore attack herds of dodo birds or occasionally engage larger prey in combat. In all honesty the dino versus dino combat is only impressive due to it’s grand scale, watching a Spinosaurus take on Triceratops is only a spectacle due to it’s size not it’s value as entertainment.
The real reason the dinosaurs are such a draw for ARK is mainly the ability to tame them. Trying to tame a dinosaur for either you or your tribe provides both a great challenge and large portion of its content. With many different dinosaurs you can tame, each having different positives and negatives means that while playing ARK I had a gotta-catch-em-all mentality, I wanted to have at least on of every dinosaur. I however never reached that goal due to a myriad of reasons, the equipment needed to tame a dinosaur is simple your fists, some sleeping berries and that dinos preferred food. However the equipment to effectively tame a dinosaur is pretty high level, punching a Stegosaurus not only takes a long time but is a sure fire way to get yourself killed. Bows and arrows are locked till level 20, narcotics to make tranquilizer is around level 10, the actual tranq arrows are even higher level. Not to mention protecting your dinosaur while it sleeps and eats its favorite food (this is the taming process) from other predators or on PVP servers other players is a challenge in itself, as well as constantly doping up the dinosaur to make sure it stays sleeping. However the sense of accomplishment knowing that you have a giant hulking Triceratops that cannot not only aid you in battle but help gather resources by knocking down trees or smashing rocks, is incredible and kept me taming different dinosaurs.
What’s better than owning a Carbonemys named Phillip? Being able to ride it of course. Not all dinosaurs can be used as mounts but the majority can, this provides multiple benefits not just faster travel. The larger dinosaurs can be used as mounts in combat to help take down giant beast like Spinosaurs or they can be used to smash up the environment and mass gather building resources. Of course the higher level you are means you can craft saddles for better dinosaurs, the higher levels are reserved for flying dinosaurs like the Pteranadon which allow you traverse the island quickly and with ease. As I stated earlier the island provides you with a lot of content, but much of that is usually far from your spawn where you’ve more than likely built your base. So by riding dinosaurs you are free from the shackles of your slow human legs and can adventure and explore as you wish, but be warned once your beloved dinosaur friend bites the dust you’ll have to go through the same grueling process of taming another.
Scattered around ARK’s vast island are large floating crystals of different colors that drop supplies to survivors. The colors denote what level you can access them at and of course higher level is equal to greater loot, white is everyone, green is 15+ etc. These provide points of constant battle on PVP servers and are generally infested with higher level dinosaurs to protect them, just adding to the general chaos of survivors vying for supplies. These floating crystals as well as the on jammed into your forearm allude to some kind of Sci-Fi overstay in ARK akin to a social experiment like Battle Royale. There are even boss battles to hunt out and tackle such as with the Broodmoother, but the story is in no way central or relevant to your enjoyment.
Exploring the vast island of ARK was the most fun I had in the game
In it’s current state as an Early Access game ARK doesn’t have a myriad of surprises up its sleeve to astound fans of the survival genre, but it does have the making of a really solid survival game. Once you get beyond the performance issues it provides a lot of fun, especially with friends, but getting past those issues is a task upon itself. Not to mention the game really is a long grind in order to reach the best parts. I really like ARK and genuinely think if you want to play a survival game, you should play ARK but it doesn’t do anything to evolve the genre, so if your already deep into H1Z1 or The Forest etc. Then you can probably stick with what you know. However just on the grounds at least attempted to distance itself from the other genres by being different in theme or scope it’s worth a look for avid survival game fans and could easily be the game that draws new players to the genre.